For decades, people have taken from Makahuri.

Teenagers would break in to share ghost stories. People would kick down doors, smash windows, and steal anything of value that hadn't already been scavenged.

Years have passed as the land became wild and overgrown, and the buildings fell into ruin.

It's only now a former Raumati couple have moved on to the land, that people have finally started giving back.

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Many will know the property as Marycrest, the Catholic girls' school that ran from the early 1950s and closed in the 80s. But since moving in, Drew MacKenzie and Anthony Ryan have restored the land to its original name - Makahuri.

The school building, which the couple call 'the factory', can be seen from the road. Photo/Mark Mitchell
The school building, which the couple call 'the factory', can be seen from the road. Photo/Mark Mitchell

The couple were initially drawn to the 20ha block for the section of kahikatea forest on it. The run-down buildings were just a bonus.

"We just came here to be nosy, really," said MacKenzie.

When they first moved on to the land, much of it was completely overgrown with blackberry. An entire driveway and large rock garden were hidden under the growth. The couple didn't even realise they were there until they began removing the noxious plant.

"Everything's like an archaeological dig. Doesn't matter what you're doing, we're constantly uncovering something exciting."

They still have a long way to go with the removal, but the renovation of the buildings is a far bigger task.

"It had been a dumping ground for years for everybody," MacKenzie said.

The manor house may have been built in the early 1800s and added to in the 1930s, and is where MacKenzie and Ryan now live. Photo/Mark Mitchell
The manor house may have been built in the early 1800s and added to in the 1930s, and is where MacKenzie and Ryan now live. Photo/Mark Mitchell

Huge heaps of rubbish took months to remove, while much of the damage caused by people hunting for copper or timber, remains.

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"On some level I understand it. When you see something just deteriorating, one thought is if I take this stuff, I could make good use of it. They certainly haven't done it in any sort of respectful way, really. They've just smashed and grabbed, really."

Various people have lived or squatted in the old buildings over the past 20 to 40 years, including a family of nine rumoured to have lived in a section of the old school building, which MacKenzie and Ryan refer to as "the factory".

"It's a bit like the Wild West, really," Ryan said. "Cops used to come here all the time for people lighting fires or people in trouble, whatever.

MacKenzie said Makahuri was "the place to go" for teenagers or young people wanting to be spooked.

The couple are tired of this though - Makahuri is their home, and they certainly don't find it spooky.

The old school at Makahuri holds a number of rooms, including what may have been doctors and dentist rooms, and a bakery. Photo/Mark Mitchell
The old school at Makahuri holds a number of rooms, including what may have been doctors and dentist rooms, and a bakery. Photo/Mark Mitchell

It also has a rich history stretching further back than the construction of the school.

Part of the land is where the fierce inter-tribal Battle of Horowhenua in the 1830s is thought to have ended. It's believed the bodies of Maori warriors killed in the battle lie buried on a hill not far from the main buildings.

A little further along in time, the land was used for farming, but after much of it was requisitioned during World War II, it was sold off.

The origins of the manor house on the section are a little hazy - there are no council records or plans for the building - but the couple believe it may have been built in the late 1800s, and then added to in the 1930s.

Makahuri owners Drew MacKenzie and Anthony Ryan have cleaned up and renovated the chapel on their 20 hectare complex. Photo/Mark Mitchell
Makahuri owners Drew MacKenzie and Anthony Ryan have cleaned up and renovated the chapel on their 20 hectare complex. Photo/Mark Mitchell

The space was eventually sold to the Good Shepherd Trust, which built six major buildings on the land, including the school, a couple of accommodation blocks, and a chapel.

The school housed up to 70 nuns and between 90 and 200 students until the early 80s, when it closed down. The area has been largely abandoned since then, with the buildings slowly degrading as time and vandals wreaked havoc.

A stroll through the once-grand manor house reveals numerous rooms - the upper storey alone has 10 bedrooms.

What used to be the drawing room is for the most part out of bounds due to rotting floorboards.

Ryan said they called it the "waterfall room" when they first moved in because rain would pour in through the ceiling, and plants were growing in the floor.

Mackenzie and Ryan have reclaimed the property's original name, Makahuri. Photo/Mark Mitchell
Mackenzie and Ryan have reclaimed the property's original name, Makahuri. Photo/Mark Mitchell

Much of the plumbing has been stolen, so it has taken some time to get hot water, and so far it is only available in the bathroom.

"Part of our agreement in buying the place was we actually had access to it for three months prior to settlement," MacKenzie said.

"We did that so we could start cleaning up. We had big working bees, people were really up for helping. There's something about buying something like this that gets people's curiosity going."

They started with cleaning the manor house and the chapel so they could decide which building to live in.

Broken and stolen windows, holes in the ceiling, rotting parts of the house and all the other things that come with buying an abandoned property "never felt daunting", MacKenzie said.

Ramshackle buildings behind the manor house used to be where the nuns lived while Marycrest School was still running. Photo/Mark Mitchell
Ramshackle buildings behind the manor house used to be where the nuns lived while Marycrest School was still running. Photo/Mark Mitchell

"We realised very early on it just had to be an exercise in mindfulness. If you thought too far ahead you would just end up in a foetal position rocking in a corner."

For this reason, the couple don't have any big, set plans for the property. They simply focus on doing what they can, bit by bit.

"We're here for the long haul, so what's the next step?"

There was a groundskeeper that kept the land immaculate when it was still being run by the Catholics.

"We've had women come back and actually been in tears at the state of it," MacKenzie said.

Women who had attended the old girls' school would sometimes come to visit the place, and the couple would drop everything to take them for a tour.

For many of them, they had arrived at the school in a personal moment of crisis, so it was an emotional time for them when they visited.

Weeds and blackberry have overtaken much of the grounds and in some parts have swallowed whole driveways and rock gardens. Photo/Mark Mitchell
Weeds and blackberry have overtaken much of the grounds and in some parts have swallowed whole driveways and rock gardens. Photo/Mark Mitchell

"We've had lots of tears here."

After some time spent making the place habitable, the couple held an official opening ceremony in the chapel.

Local iwi Ngāti Raukawa welcomed them on to the land and performed a blessing on the chapel.

"We're just the kaitiaki here," MacKenzie said. "It just means guardians."

Ryan said the ceremony was partly about letting people know that the property wasn't empty anymore.

They have now put in funding applications for help with fencing and trapping around the forest and swamp area. They hope to begin growing back the forest and help restore the birdlife.

Ryan said the "energy" of the place was something they noticed early on. They fell in love with the forest first, and while the energy of the buildings was "a bit foreboding", it was starting to change.

Makahuri owners Drew MacKenzie and Anthony Ryan want people to know the land is now occupied - and not free for vandalism, tagging, and ghost stories. Photo/Mark Mitchell
Makahuri owners Drew MacKenzie and Anthony Ryan want people to know the land is now occupied - and not free for vandalism, tagging, and ghost stories. Photo/Mark Mitchell

They were beginning to build a small community on the land, with other people coming to live with them in the house or other parts of the property. The couple like to call it a village.

On top of that there's a cat, two dogs, some horses, and a friendly pig named Trinity.

MacKenzie said they regularly dealt with trespassers "coming in and smashing stuff".

"We just say 'can we help you? There's nothing to see, off you go' . . . they tend to take off."

Now the couple have a message for anyone planning on breaking in.

"This is not a public place anymore," MacKenzie said.

"We understand curiosity. We have a thing running that if people want to come and take, whether it's photographs, wanting to come and take images, what are they going to offer back?

"The land and the buildings have had so much taken from them for so many years. We're trying to balance it now."